Back in the trenches?

1149px-Soldiers_in_trenchWe hear that phrase all the time, don’t we?  Those who work outside classrooms like to announce that they remember what it’s like “in the trenches”.  Classroom teachers criticize policy makers, reformers, and others who act without knowing what it means to be in those same trenches.  To those who perceive themselves as warriors fighting the good fight every day, this kind of language elicits a sense of pride, mutual respect, and self-sacrifice.  But is this really the metaphor that we want?

Here’s a little historical refresher: trench warfare was some of the most horrific fighting of any period of world history.  And that had less to do with the advent of chemical weapons during World War I as it did with the unsanitary conditions that helped Spanish Influenza kill more American soldiers than combat.  It was a gruesome sort of military action that mainly consisted of stalemates that dragged on for months, as each side lobbed artillery at the other and shot anyone who climbed out of those claustrophobic earthen tunnels of misery.

The impasse was punctuated by surges of troops emerging from the trenches in an attempt to advance, usually with the loss of more than 90% of their brave doughboys.  Progress on this front of The Great War, located mostly in France, was nearly nonexistent.  The war was neither won nor lost in the trenches, but rather through air superiority and advances in tank design.  That lesson is often lost on those who think of trench fighting as noble: it rarely results in change.

In truth, education needs so much more than stalemates and status quo.  We need new strategies and new tools.  We need innovation and experimentation.  Above all, we need teachers who see their role as not simply holding the line but advancing it.

I consider all this as I return to the middle school science classroom this week (after a 9-month hiatus) and receive encouragement from those who are glad to have me back in the trenches.  I take this praise with trepidation, however, because I know that it is far too easy to become “entrenched” in the ways of today and lose sight of the need for momentum.  I am well aware that it takes small squads of courageous educators to jump over the barbed wire and cross no man’s land in order for us get to where we need to be.

Are you “in the trenches” or deeply “entrenched”?  Do you see a difference?

photo credit:  Wikimedia Commons


The 8 Things I’ve Done This Year That Are Most Embarrassing in Hindsight

I was working on this post when I read this one from TeachThought.  My first reaction was to just hit the delete button, but Dean Shareski convinced me to publish a more personal list.  I thought it was a great idea, and here is the result.

Head in HandsIt’s clear to many of us in education that the way that we currently do things–the industrial-model that hasn’t changed substantively in more than a century–will eventually yield to more progressive learning and teaching methods.  We can’t continue to educate in teacher-centric ways that ignore the massive shift brought on by the omnipresence of the Internet and its resources.

Despite this awareness, however, I’m as guilty as anyone else when it comes to perpetuating the practices that most need to stop.  Over the past year–which I have spent in the classroom and on the road, working with students, teachers, and administrators–I’ve caught myself doing things that, in hindsight, left me feeling like a hypocrite.  Here’s the short list: Continue reading


Two Very Different Leadership Academies

20130126-160115.jpgI was fortunate to spend the end of January at EduCon, the education conference/conversation staged by the staff and students of Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. It’s a unique educational experience that pushes educators and those who value education to think divergently and learn from one another.

One of the most interesting parts of this experience is the setting. SLA is a public magnet high school that represents a partnership between the Philadelphia School District and the Franklin Institute Science Museum. Students from all over Philadelphia apply each year (800 of them last year!) for 120 positions in the new ninth grade class. Their work is all project-based, and from the looks of things, remarkably student-centered. On my tour, I witnessed ridiculous levels of student engagement and mind-blowing creativity from the students in each class. Students were given the freedom to collaborate, and it was clear that learning revolved around them. It was intended to be impressive… and it certainly was.

A new friend pointed out to me after the tour that I work at “Wake Young Men’s Leadership Academy” and asked how similar the two schools are. I was struck with how obvious this question seemed to be, and yet how it had never occurred to me. My school is in a different category than SLA.

For starters, the Philly school accepts only the best and brightest whom apply. This is how magnet schools were originally intended to be. Students get a unique opportunity to learn in an accelerated environment after demonstrating that they have the necessary skills and maturity. They don’t have to worry about remediation or behavior support specialists because they are an elite public school.

WYMLA, on the other hand, is an application-only school whose students are chosen by a lottery. We are specifically mandated to fill half of our seats with students from disadvantaged backgrounds. We are required to match the racial and socioeconomic profile of our district. As a result, we have a significant population that requires specially-designed instruction and lacks basic skills in many areas.

We also have a motivation problem that SLA does not. Their students seem excited to be there and energized by the opportunities. They have a learning community atmosphere that is enhanced by their online activity. Fundraising programs, like EduCon, bring in the money needed to loan every student a MacBook each year. They make a strong case for the power of 1:1 education.

Meanwhile, as a new school, WYMLA has a wide array of technology, as well. We’re not quite 1:1, but close. Yet, our students seem to lack the maturity and self-control to work well in the independent learning environment that thrives at SLA. We spend inordinate amounts of time on classroom management and discipline. Why the big difference?

I won’t chalk it up to population because the SLA student body is racially and socioeconomically diverse. But, I do believe that the nature of their selection process and the standards that they are permitted to establish (for academics and student behavior) set them apart. It is exciting to know that places like Science Leadership Academy can exist, but I am glad to be where I am.

At my school, I have the satisfaction that I am providing enhanced instruction for those who are ready for it while still “making a difference” with the students who would not be able to succeed elsewhere. It’s a unique combination that leaves me appreciating my job more and more every day.

How does your school stack up against SLA?


I’m Not Ready, So How Can My Students Be

20130126-152835.jpgAs I engage in conversations and listen to panel discussions here at EduCon 2.5, I find myself struck by an important idea:
I’m not ready.

I understand the need to change, and I recognize the ways in which public education is failing our students. I write about what must be done, and I talk about the reforms that are needed. But, when I step back into my classroom, I freeze up. I think of all the obstacles that get in the way of better lessons. I get frustrated about the inadequate resources and the limited time that I have to plan and assess.

And, at least half the time, what actually happens in my classroom is not nearly as progressive and powerful as most people who know me would expect. I fall short of the expectations that I put forth for the world of education. And the reason for this failure is simple:
I’m not ready.

I want my teaching to be more student-centered and more project-based, but I can’t even wrap my head around the time and effort (and mental re-tooling) that would be needed to get there. I get “teacher’s block” and end up falling back on the practices that I started my career with. I fail.

And this is a scary thing for me. I resent my own deficiences and want to improve upon them, so I guess that’s a good start. But it doesn’t do much to ease my worries for the time being. I mean, if I can’t get on board and be the teacher I need to be, how can I expect my students to join this revolution?

Do you feel this pressure? How do you deal with it?


Learning about Teaching from Cartoons

My good friend and mental mentor, Bill Ferriter recently waxed philosophical about the lessons for teachers can be squeezed from children’s animated television.  I agree with him.

Just this morning, while I was watching cartoons while my children sleep with my children, I came upon an episode of SpongeBob Squarepants that I had seen several times before.  But, this time, I was able to appreciate it in a whole new light.  The scene opens with Spongebob’s venerable boating teacher, Mrs. Puff, receiving a warning that her teaching license is up for renewal.  Watch the clip below to see what I mean:

So, what’s the take-home lesson for our education system?  Should we dwell on the fact that this teacher is being judged on her students’ passing rate?  Should we be outraged at the ridiculous idea that a teacher could be fired because one of her students has failed repeatedly? Or, should we side with the inspector and place responsibility for our students’ success firmly on our shoulders?  Should the powers that supervise teachers focus on data as the only measure of a teacher’s value?

Or, is this just another ridiculous plot line from a silly show designed to entertain children?

What do you think?


This is Why We Owe It To Our Students to Change Education


Speaking of continual improvement, from Gina Trapani’s blog, Smarterware, I read this amazing company creed crafted by Automattic (the business behind the open-source WordPress blogging platform and  It’s nearly impossible to read this and not think,

How many of my students are ready to work in a place like this?

I will never stop learning. I won’t just work on things that are assigned to me. I know there’s no such thing as a status quo. I will build our business sustainably through passionate and loyal customers. I will never pass up an opportunity to help out a colleague, and I’ll remember the days before I knew everything. I am more motivated by impact than money, and I know that Open Source is one of the most powerful ideas of our generation. I will communicate as much as possible, because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company. I am in a marathon, not a sprint, and no matter how far away the goal is, the only way to get there is by putting one foot in front of another every day. Given time, there is no problem that’s insurmountable.

-Automattic Company Creed (via

Maybe the more important question is “What would it take for all of my students to be ready to work in a place like this?”

What do you think?


Will It Blend?

It seems that the Educational “Meme of the Month” is blended learning.  Thanks to plugs from NBC’s Education Nation event and high-profile articles in the Huffington Post, Grand Rapids Press, and other news outlets, blended education is seriously “trending”.

As an educator, I see great promise in an education system that mixes self-paced online education with classroom instruction.  I recognize the potential for loosening the chains on our high-performing students, giving them the freedom to learn in an accelerated way.  I see the opportunity for more attention to be placed on the lowest achieving students as a teacher’s workload is diminished (by those advanced students “teaching themselves”).

I witness all of this and I wonder: Will this change ever really come to public education?

I have every right to be skeptical.  I’ve seen my share of doomed initiatives and watered-down reforms fail miserably.  I’ve gotten excited about upcoming changes, only to see those changes derailed and postponed and eventually cancelled due to lack of funding.  It’s ridiculously depressing and it has led me to be uncharacteristically jaded about new ideas in education.

And, that’s why–for now–I’m going to keep my head down, keep my feet on the ground, and avoid gazing up at those sparkly lights in the sky.  I’ll just have to wait and see.

Am I being too cynical?